By Suman Sorg, FAIA – Originally published in the American Institute of Architect, Practice Management Digest
In an era of ever greater consolidation of architecture firms into multi-discipline A/E conglomerates and a still lagging economy, it can be a struggle for the design-focused practice to compete, or simply stay afloat. Juggling a myriad of issues –lower fees, fewer opportunities, heightened competition, staying abreast of the digital revolution, retaining skilled staff, to name a few –can easily distract design principals from focusing on developing a body of design work.
Design as a Goal
Codify design as a firm-wide goal. As principals of small and medium-sized firms, our practices follow the courses we chart, consciously or unconsciously. Keeping a disciplined focus on design goals can be achieved by:
• Selectively accepting project commissions
• Investing in design tools
• Working to obtain visibility through design awards, exhibitions, competitions and getting work published
• Create business plans that clearly define goals, objectives and strategies
These efforts can help prevent or reduce the drift that can occur when revenue is over-valued to the detriment of design goals. Of course you must first stay open for business so balancing ideals with the realities of being responsible business owners is critical.
Finding Design Opportunities
Let’s be realistic, not every commission is a design gem. But projects with program, budget, schedule, and aesthetic constraints do not have to derail the process of engaging and evolving highly skilled design abilities. Find design opportunities in every project, no matter the type or scale. This is not always easy, but the good news is today’s American consumer of architecture is highly sophisticated and, more and more often, expects good design. The relatively recent phenomenon of design as a commodity that enhances a project’s overall value has begun to influence clients from real estate developers to municipal bodies. In the same way as sustainable design has been advanced in American society over the past decade, architects can forward this pro-design momentum by serving as educators for our clients - demonstrating that good design does not always mean more expense, but often leads to innovation and an increase to the client’s bottom line.
Keeping Up with Design Tools
As design principals and business leaders, it is incumbent upon us to stay abreast of new developments in the profession to remain competitive. This means investing in design tools such as 3D imaging, animations, 3D printing, and research. These tools can help small design firms compete with more established peers. Fortunately, maximizing these design tools is now easier and less expensive.
In addition to arming ourselves with the current tools and skilled teams needed to produce good work, design principals need to keep up with the definition of “design,” “design excellence,” or “good design” itself. We seldom spend time contemplating how the perception of design quality is changing across the profession. Design is no longer just about pretty forms. It includes building performance, environmental stewardship, lifecycle costs, technology, ease of maintainability, and context, among other facets. The evolution of this definition means that, as principals, we need to take an all-encompassing approach to pursuing design. To achieve good design, I advocate an integrated, research-based approach that rigorously engages the full spectrum of project specifics with an intuitive, inspirational process.
Owning your Design Process
Trends in architecture are not just related to building design. These trends infiltrate design process just as insidiously and this can have the effect of unbalancing design principles at the core of what we do: the way we design buildings. Over the course of my career I’ve alternately thought, “I don’t have language to describe my design process,” “my process is intuitive and can’t be explained,” or “maybe I don’t have a process at all!” What I have realized over the years is that my design process “is what it is” and try as I might to change it, I can’t. The way I design is neither wholly research-based, nor wholly intuitive. The way I work lands somewhere in between, is modulated for each commission, and has changed over time. So I may as well own it. And owning it is the key: gaining confidence in the way I design buildings has been instrumental in my ability to hone the focus of my firm’s design goals.
Gaining visibility for your design work is a multi-pronged, long-term process. Avenues for getting the word out about your firm’s work include submitting for design awards, being featured in the press, and exhibiting your work. Success in these efforts is dependent on the coordination of two facets: research and relationships. There are a myriad awards for design supported by professional associations, government entities and others, and crafting a winning strategy entails conducting detailed, ongoing research on which awards are relevant to your project, deadlines for entry, and past winners to estimate the potential of success. Similarly, since the number of print and online press outlets has multiplied exponentially, creating and maintaining a focused press list, including publications, contacts, and editorial calendars and crafting story pitches is a must. But research alone is not enough. Establishing and maintaining relationships with the press and getting involved with design oriented professional organizations is critical. After all, if you don’t promote your work, no one else will.
There is no established roadmap for the practice led by a design principal. We try our best to be both dedicated artists and keen business people even when these two come into conflict. The only way I know how to try to keep these forces in balance is to try to orient as much about my practice as possible toward my design goals - from building firm culture and structure, to the team I have formed, to the projects I pursue, to gaining visibility, to investing in design resources, to consciously finding design opportunities in each and every commission. And, for me, it has been both rewarding and frustrating every day for the last 26 years.